Future of genetically modified crops

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Government needs to urgently develop institutional structures to allay public apprehension

Future of genetically modified crops
AFP
PRODUCTIVE YIELD : Italian president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi (R) talks with then science and technology minister Kapil Sibal at International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology on February 16, 2005
M S Swaminathan

I was a contemporary of James Watson and Francis Crick at the University of Cambridge, UK, during 1950-52. I was aware of the fact that they were working on the molecular structure of DNA in association with Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin since I used to visit the Cavendish Laboratory to attend lectures by Prof Max Perutz. Their publication on the double helix structure of the DNA molecule appeared in Nature early in 1953 (Watson J D and Crick FHC, 1953. “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid” Nature, 171, 737-738) I was then at the Genetics Laboratory of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA. Since then, I have been following the explosive progress of the science of molecular genetics, opening up uncommon opportunities for transferring genes across sexual barriers.

In 1980, when I joined the Union Planning Commission at the invitation of the then prime minister Indira Gandhi, I set up a National Biotechnology Board to achieve synergy and coordination among the work in progress in molecular genetics and genetic engineering under the umbrella of different scientific organisations like ICAR, CSIR, ICMR, Department of At­omic Energy and UGC. I served as the first chair of the Board. Later, it was converted into the department of biotechnology during the tenure of prime minster Rajiv Gandhi, with S Ramachandran serving as its first Secretary.

During the last 30 years, the government of India has invested a considerable amount of money in creating the infrastructure essential for advanced research in the broad areas of biotechnology in general, and in genomics and genetic engineering in particular. The government is also hosting the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) in New Delhi. Both in India and abroad, much investment has been made for human resource development in the areas of environmental, medical, industrial, food and agricultural biotechnology. The first patent for a living genetically modified org­an­ism was granted to Anand Ch­akraborty in the US for his work on the deve­lo­pment of a pseudomonas strain wh­ich can clean up oil spills. Genetic medicine including vaccine development is also making rapid progress. Bioremediation is gaining in importance with growing pollution of water. However, in the field of agricultural and food bio­technology, there are concerns about biosafety, environmental safety, biodiversity loss and food safety. The Global Biodiversity Convention adopted at Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 has the following clause with respect to biosafety:

“The Parties shall consider the need for and modalities of a protocol setting out appropriate pr­ocedures, including, in pa­rticular, advance informed agreement, in the field of the safe transfer, handling and use of any living modified organism resulting from biotechnology that may have adverse effect on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.”

This resulted in the adoption of the Cartagena Protocol for biosafety. The Cartagena Protocol is the only international environmental agreement that is concerned exclusively with the transboundary movement (that is, trade) of products of modern bio­technology that are living modified organisms. It applies to the transboundary movement, transit, handling and use of all living modified organisms that may have adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking into account risks to human health. GM foods are considered only if they are LMOs that may be subject to transboundary movement for direct use as food, feed or for processing. The protocol does not apply to processed food products, nor does it address the food safety of LMOs that are for food, feed or processing. This Protocol was discussed in detail recently at Hyderabad on the Occasion of the Conference of Parties (CoP 11) of CBD.

In 2004, a committee set up by the ministry of agriculture of the government of India under my chairmanship (Report of the Task Force on Applications of Agricultural Biotechnology, May 2004, ministry of agriculture, government of India) made several recommendations of which the following is important:

“The bottom line of our national agricultural bio­technology policy should be the economic well being of farm families, food security of the nation, health security of the consumer, biosecurity of agriculture, protection of the environment, and the security of national and international trade in farm commodities”.

Recently, the committee on agriculture of parliament, headed by Basudeb Acharia with 31 members of parliament drawn from bo­th the houses (Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha) and from all political parties has submitted a very detailed report on “Cultivation of genetically modified food crops: Prospects and Effects” (Lok Sabha Secretariat, August 2012, 492 pp).

The committee has una­nimously recommended th­at “till all the concerns vo­iced in the report are fully addressed and decisive action is taken by the government with utmost priority to put in place all regulatory, monitoring, oversight, surveillance and other structures, further research and development on transgenics in agricultural crops should only be done in strict containment, and field trials under any garb should be discontinued forthwith”. The committee also sug­gested, “What the country ne­eds is not a biotechnology regulatory legislation but an all encompassing umbrella legislation on biosafety, wh­ich is focused on ensuring the biosafety, biodiversity, human and livestock hea­lth, environmental protection, and which specifically des­cribes the extent to wh­ich biotechnology, including modern biotechnology, fits in the scheme of things wi­thout compromising with the safety of any one of the elements mentioned ab­ove. The committee, the­refore, recommend to the go­ve­rnment with all the po­wer at their command to immediately evolve such a legislation after due consultation with all stakeholders and bring it before parliament without any further delay. In this context, the committee would advise government to duly consult the Norwegian Law, which emulates this spirit to a large extent”.

Can we take advantage of the beneficial aspects of recombinant DNA technology by greater investment in public good research, as for example in the breeding of crop varieties whose seeds farmers can keep and resow, rather than concentrate only on hybrids whose seeds the farmers have to buy every crop season? How can we develop institutional structures, which can help to allay the apprehensions of the public? This is the most urgent task facing the central and state governments today with reference to genetically modified cr­ops. The sooner we address the issues raised by the parliamentary committee, the greater will be the opportunity for harnessing molecular genetics for sustainable food security.

(M S Swaminathan is an agricultural scientist who led India’s green revolution)

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